'Soaring' budgets disputed

10th July 2009 at 01:00
Education spending in Scotland has become battleground between SNP and Labour

SNP claims that education spending is "soaring" on its watch have provoked a chorus of protests, and brought to the surface simmering animosity between the Government and the largest education authority.

Ken Cunningham, the leader of Scotland's secondary headteachers, demanded a "serious investigation" into why the figures do not "stack up" between funding commitments and schools' experience, which is of budget cuts.

And the general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, John Stodter, said that, while there was more to spend, everything cost a lot more. He cited salary and national insurance costs, fuel bills and the need to fund policies such as free school meals for all pupils in P1-3. These swallowed up 5-6 per cent of any cash increase.

Kenny Gibson, SNP MSP and deputy convener of the Parliament's education committee, claimed this week that provisional local authority budget figures showed it was "now undeniable that education spending in Scotland has increased under the SNP Scottish Government", and that SNP councils were "leading the way with average increases of over 10 per cent".

An SNP spokeswoman contrasted SNP councils' education budgets with Labour- led Glasgow's, which she claimed was being cut by pound;7 million next year.

Glasgow's executive member for education, Jonathan Findlay, responded that the provisional budget figures were no longer accurate and that the SNP had ignored government statisticians' caveats. "The figures quoted in government statistics were an estimated spend given in November, six months before the end of the financial year, and were not what we actually spent," he said. "In fact, we spent pound;493.2 million on education last year and, this year, we plan to spend pound;494.4 million. Therefore, our education budget has increased by pound;1.2 million. It's typical of the SNP that they release a set of national figures and are then only interested in kicking Glasgow."

The SNP's claims of "soaring" education spending were prompted by an official government statistical bulletin, giving provisional out-turn figures for 2008-09 and budget estimates for 2009-10.

It showed that Scottish local authorities' total net revenue expenditure was pound;12.431 billion in 2008-09; of this, pound;4.678bn was on education - 38 per cent. For 2009-10, their projected budget estimates total pound;12.848bn, with pound;4.798bn - 37 per cent - planned for education.

The SNP said the figures showed that local authority education budgets would have increased by an average of 8.3 per cent or pound;366m between 2008 and 2010 under the SNP Government. "Spending in 2008-09 increased by 5.5 per cent and is expected to increase by at least 2.6 per cent in 2009-10," the SNP spokeswoman said. "SNP-led councils show the highest average increase, with an average 10.2 per cent increase over two years, compared with an 8.8 per cent increase in Labour-led councils."

But Labour education spokeswoman Karen Whitefield accused Mr Gibson of "trying to fiddle the figures" and challenged him to explain why there were now 1,000 fewer teachers and rising class sizes in most parts of Scotland.

Ken Macintosh, also a Labour education spokesman, added that four local authorities, including SNP-run Renfrewshire, had been forced to cut their education budget because "the Scottish Government has given education its worst spending settlement since devolution". The other three were Glasgow, Midlothian and Aberdeenshire.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, expressed concern over the reduction spending on education from 38 per cent to 37 per cent of council budgets.

"Education is being squeezed relative to the full gamut of council services," he said. "Whatever the headline pounds and pence may be, the experience on the ground for most teachers does not seem to accord with it."

Mr Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, added: "Despite probably unprecedented levels of national commitment financially, schools are experiencing serious cuts to per capita, CPD and staffing levels. Why that should be demands serious investigation because, at school level in several authorities, the figures don't stack up."

* Labour has also accused the Government of failing another manifesto commitment - that it would work towards a "guarantee of five days' outdoor education for every pupil". Its survey of every local authority in Scotland revealed that not a single one was currently meeting this commitment, it said.

A Scottish Government spokesperson responded that it was committed to every pupil having outdoor learning opportunities as part of their school education. "This is an integral aspect of A Curriculum for Excellence, which every local authority has committed to delivering through the 2009 single outcome agreement process. "We are providing Scotland's local authorities with record levels of funding - pound;23 billion from 2008-10."

SNP spokeswoman said. "SNP-led councils show the highest increase, with an average 10.2 per cent increase over two years, compared with an 8.8 per cent increase in Labour-led councils."

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